The rapid development of voice and data technologies makes telecoms one of the most dynamic industries to work in.
The two fields are rapidly converging, opening up new opportunities for technology staff as businesses increasingly shift from voice telephony networks to data networks carrying multimedia traffic. The Communications Management Association's annual membership survey highlighted "the growing importance of converged IP networking" and "evidence that VoIP has moved out of the experimental stage into the mainstream".
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That convergence is dramatically changing the scope of IT roles in the telecoms industry. Hazel Leighfield, head of the ICT division at recruitment firm S.Com, said a wide range of skills is in demand, from design to helpdesk support. "But the biggest skill sets we are recruiting are in networking - data and voice networking," she said.
Les Clark, chairman of recruitment company Glotel, sits on the board of the Association of Technology Staffing Companies. He said networking is a good way for IT professionals to break into the telecoms industry. His firm is placing project managers, technology architects, network designers and planners with telecoms companies. And there are opportunities worldwide.
"In the market in which we operate, 64% of business is overseas. There is an opportunity for contract staff because they are developing the infrastructure. There are opportunities anywhere you want to go," said Clark.
But networking is not the only route into telecoms. Mark Ashton, resourcing manager at mobile network operator Orange, said, "The telecoms market can offer a challenging and varied career. It is extremely fast-moving, with technology changing and improving at a rapid pace, needing people that can adapt, learn and challenge themselves. Skills that are in demand are VoIP, J2EE, EAI, middleware and IP development and design."
Orange's solution delivery team, which develops products and services for internal and external clients, offers opportunities for people with a grounding in a software development or research development, said Ashton.
At Vodafone, chief technical officer Paul Wybrow combines the traditional CIO role with overseeing the telecoms network. "The technical evolution is colliding at a phenomenal rate," he said. There is a wide variety of IT roles in the company, from traditional back-office IT to support for call centres, products and services and billing.
Oracle skills, experience of the Amdocs and Clarify billing systems, and Unix and Microsoft experience are all useful, said Wybrow. "But if people can come in with mobile experience, that is a plus," he said.
"I am looking for people with a passion for customers, strong business skills and leadership - particularly at management level. It is not good enough to be the world's greatest IT expert. What is important is what the person has actually done for the business."
Vodafone is also involved in a huge project to consolidate its global IT infrastructure. "We are looking for analysts, business analysts, some developers and project managers. Telecoms is a bonus, but we take people from various backgrounds," said Wybrow.
BT's approach to the convergence between telecoms, networking and IT services is to diversify its business and develop its role as an IT services organisation.
Martin Thomas, head of recruitment at BT Global, the telco's networked IT services wing, said there are openings for people with networking infrastructure or systems implementation experience and for those with expertise in specific areas, such as Microsoft products, Siebel CRM, messaging and workflow systems.
"We are recruiting client-facing people more and more, people with good communications, interpersonal and professional skills as well as core technical capabilities," he added.
Leighfield said telecoms firms are recruiting staff to fulfil contracts, often in the public sector. "There is a great need for project management people with experience of rolling out upgrades," she said. "We get a lot of VoIP requests - not for the telecoms company's own infrastructure, but for their customers."
The big telecoms firms are all changing, but in different ways - and that means a greater variety of opportunities opening up for IT professionals.
Growing demand for telecoms staff
Demand for telecoms staff is reviving after an 18-month drought, according to sector skills council E-Skills UK. And demand for networking professionals is at its highest since 2001, it said.
However, Philip Virgo, strategic advisor at the Institute for the Management of Information Systems warned that the UK needs to keep its skills up to date as it competes in a global market.
For example, next-generation network standard IP version 6 is not being taught in the UK or the US but it is being taught on the Pacific Rim, he said.
"Everyone is going to have to transition their networks [from IPv4]. Those who can do that kind of thing are going to be in great demand. The problem is going to be where to acquire those skills," said Virgo.
Tips for getting into telecoms
- Research the big firms to see what skills they are looking for
- Networking skills are a key area of demand, with many employers looking for Cisco certification
- Project management skills are sought after. Project and change management qualifications in Prince and ITIL make candidates more attractive
- Employers such as BT are increasingly demanding a degree in science, engineering, computing or other technology subjects
- Employers value communication and customer-facing skills alongside experience and qualifications
- Both contract and permanent staff are in demand. Contract staff are expected to be skilled and experienced, but employers are often willing to train permanent staff
- Pay for contractors can range from £10 an hour for a first-line support job to £650 a day for a senior project manager with specific telecoms network experience.
Case study: the future's bright...
Alan Steele is a platform support manager at Orange. He joined the firm five years ago in an IT strategy role, having done a similar job in retail, and believes the telecoms industry is for people who are adaptable and dynamic.
"There is an ever-changing environment with new products all the time. It is very competitive. It is very technology-based and you need to be au fait with the technologies of the day," he said.
Steele has a degree in computer science, but said his job means he is always learning. "Never a day goes by without something new happening. There is lots going on, lots of opportunities. Other industries are a bit more staid," he said.
His colleagues are "a cross-section of people from different industries", with several coming in with network experience.
Steele has done several jobs since joining Orange, moving from infrastructure architect to a support role managing a small team. He was promoted to manage a handful of support teams and has now changed again, partly because the company has changed the way IT support is offered.
Steele relishes the pace of change. "You will learn a lot very quickly. You have to come in and embrace it. I cannot think of a more dynamic industry," he said.